How quickly can degenerative disc disease progress?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a common disorder characterized by the deterioration of the discs between the vertebrae. These structures cushion and support the bones of the spine, binding them together and allowing for a range of motions in the neck and lower back. A healthy disc is quite resilient, routinely absorbing impacts before springing back to its original shape. Over time, however, the strong outer wall — called the annulus fibrosus — begins to dehydrate. As the wall becomes more brittle and less elastic, it can weaken. In many cases, this can cause a part of the annulus fibrosus to push outward, resulting in what is commonly referred to as a bulging disc. The outer wall may also develop rips or tears that allow the inner, gel-like material of the disc to escape. This is known as a ruptured or herniated disc. And in some cases, the disc simply becomes narrower and narrower. This is called a collapsed disc.

Most of the time, degenerative disc disease progress slowly. In early stages, patients are usually unaware they have the condition since the deterioration of discs is not painful in and of itself. It’s only when a nearby nerve root becomes compressed, either by the annulus fibrosus or mucoprotein gel, that symptoms begin. The middle stages of DDD are generally the most painful, with discomfort transitioning from mild and intermittent to intense and constant over the period of several years. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the latter stages of degenerative disc disease can sometimes be less painful, as the body adjusts to compensate for the damage disc and re-stabilizes in a process known as “degenerative cascade.” In fact, adults over the age of 60 are less likely to experience chronic back pain than adults 30 to 50.

Degenerative disc disease may develop in a span of two or three years or over several decades. Activities that can hasten the progress of DDD include:

  • Obesity
  • Poor posture
  • Participating in high-impact sports
  • Smoking
  • Using alcohol in excess
  • Having a job that requires a lot of heavy lifting

Many patients with DDD can manage their symptoms though conservative treatment options such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy and lifestyle changes. In some cases, however, surgery may be required to relieve pressure on the affected nerve root. At Laser Spine Institute, our experienced surgeons have performed more than 100,000 minimally invasive surgeries that have helped patients find lasting relief from chronic pain caused by a number of spinal conditions, including degenerative disc disease. To find out if you might be a candidate for our outpatient, contact us today.